By A.L. Sirois
A piercing shriek from the front of the office suite alerted Nipunika Carpano to the new clients’ arrival. She closed down the business plan she had been working on, beeped for her partner, and hurried out to greet them, palms perspiring.
Two Cacs’kians stood uncertainly at the receptionist’s station: imposing avian creatures in transparent environment suits. One, white-feathered with fierce, glassy red eyes, stood nearly seven feet high, towering over its four-foot tall, buff-colored companion. Fleshy beak-like protuberances dominated both their faces. Floating between the two aliens was a spherical guide module supplied by the United Worlds and emblazoned with its logo.
Maureen, the receptionist, had abandoned her chair and was as flattened against the inner glass wall separating her from the cube farm as was possible for a woman her size. She snapped her head around as Nipu entered the lounge. Vast relief replaced astonished horror on Maureen’s broad, pale face.
Before Nipu could say anything, Barry Ehrens, the other half of Ehrens & Carpano Public Relations, appeared at her side. “It’s all right, Maureen; they’ve got an appointment.” Barry smiled with what Nipu thought enviable sangfroid. “Welcome to Ehrens & Carpano,” he said to the aliens. “I’m Barry Ehrens, and this is my partner, Nipunika Carpano.”
The midget, buff-feathered Cacs’kian stepped forward and clucked, sounding so much like a broody hen that Nipu had to purse her lips hard against a burst of hysterical laughter.
“Thanking you, Mr. Ehrens.” The voice came from the softball-sized guide module floating over the creature’s left shoulder. “Being First Tramontane Nuncio G’erk 15,287 of P’kothian Lineage, West Hemisphere, Pandallian Region.”
The tall, white Cacs’kian abruptly pushed Nuncio G’erk aside. Nipu blinked. Standing now directly in front of G’erk, blocking him from view, the alien barked, “Being Second Tramontane Nuncio H’okgon 2,784,894 of Molowet Lineage, West Hemisphere, Aurutt Region! Allowing addressing as Nuncios H’okgon and G’erk.”
“W-welcome, uh, gentlemen.” Nipu bowed slightly. She and Barry ushered the aliens past the hyperventilating Maureen and into the further reaches of the office suite. Nipu hoped the aliens were gentlemen; it was impossible to visually distinguish sex among Cacs’kians.
Nuncio H’okgon certainly wasn’t acting like a gentleman. H’okgon stalked along directly at Barry’s side, forcing his small colleague to walk next to Nipunika, behind them.
Their progress toward the conference room was accompanied by muffled exclamations and occasional dull thuds and thumps as various objects slipped out of fingers loosened by amazement. Nipu cringed inwardly at each interruption. It wasn’t as if she and Barry hadn’t warned them.
A series of meetings had prepared their employees for the firm’s first off-world clients — or so Nipu had thought at the time. Ehrens & Carpano was a small but very aggressive company, trying to secure a toehold in tough economic times. No other PR firm on the planet was willing to sign the pompous, micro-managing Cacs’kians.
“But we will,” Barry had said, striding back and forth at his end of the oak table, ignoring the dubious glances the creatives and account reps were shooting at one another. “We will, and we’ll ace the gig.” He grinned confidently at his employees. Nipu wished she felt as calm as Barry looked.
They had to ace it. Otherwise, this company, which she and Barry had founded right out of college, was toast. E&C had too many creditors — including Nipu’s father — and too few clients. Ehrens & Carpano was on life support, and the clock was ticking.
Her father, she knew, expected her to fail. He had bankrolled her partnership with Barry solely because he didn’t believe that she could make it work. And when she failed, she’d either slink back to the family recycling business or else be forced to strike out utterly on her own with no support, no money. Frank Carpano never made it easy for anyone, not even his own children.
So, when Barry came up with the desperation move of taking on an extraterrestrial client, Nipunika had agreed, albeit reluctantly.
Now, as they ushered the Nuncios G’erk and H’okgon into E&C’s conference room, Nipu wondered again if the idea was all that good. Despite their ridiculous appearance, the Cacs’kians were more imposing in the flesh than she had expected, even after studying several hours of video footage and stills from the various scientific expeditions that had contacted Cacs’k. She broke out into a cold sweat at the thought of having to be closeted in a small room with them for the next half-hour or so. As the group passed the ladies room, she told Barry she was going to make a quick pit stop. She ducked inside the lav, where she swallowed a tranq pill. She examined herself in the mirror. At twenty-nine, Nipu was two years younger than Barry, slender and black-haired, with her Indian mother’s silky persimmon complexion and big dark eyes, and the straight-ahead pragmatic personality of her father. Fortunately, she had not inherited her Italian father’s big Roman nose — or his cold demeanor.
By the time she entered the conference room, the tranq had begun to take effect, and she felt calmer. The others were all seated. She took her usual chair at the far end of the oak table, a rather strained smile on her face. No onlooker would have realized that Nipu was the victim of an almost crippling xenophobia: she was utterly terrified of non-terrestrials.
She had never told Barry. Not even her parents knew of it. Only her therapist knew the true depth of Nipu’s phobia.
Although representatives of more than a dozen extraterrestrial races could be seen in New Manhattan at any time, it was easy enough to avoid them. Most people never saw an alien except on the news. Nipu’s phobia, therefore, had never been much of an inconvenience. Until now.
It was the moment she had been dreading ever since Barry advanced the idea of taking on an off-world client. She was face to face with aliens in a small room, and without the tranq she would have bolted in terror. Nipu closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Think of anything. Pearls. Kittens. Dancing the rumba.
The Cacs’kians settled themselves gingerly into the seats, obviously not quite comfortable with human-scale furniture. G’erk was too small for the chair, and H’okgon too large. They were not the most bizarre extraterrestrial race encountered by man, but they were the silliest-looking, complete with wattles and red crests. Their every movement screamed GIANT CHICKEN. Even Maureen, the receptionist, after her initial shock at the aliens’ abrupt appearance out of the elevator had passed, recovered quickly. Nipu had heard her whisper “I didn’t know it was Halloween!” to one of her co-workers as he conducted the Cacs’kians past her desk. Their plastic e-suits crackled as they stalked by.
Nipu banished all such thoughts and doubts. Thanks to the tranq, she could actually relax a bit. Thinking of kittens, she listened to Barry as he pitched the aliens.
“We’ll start with a short film about our company.” He dimmed the lights with a wave of his hand. The aliens sat motionless, staring at the video wall for the next few minutes as the unctuous, off-screen voice talent described the company’s capabilities and client list. The UW translation module clucked and muttered to the aliens in their own language.
Little Nuncio G’erk said something to H’okgon, who responded with a sharp cluck and a peremptory gesture. Nipu watched the short exchange out of the corner of her eye. What’s with the antagonism between these two?
After about a minute, Barry leaned over toward her. He inclined his head toward the aliens, who looked impossibly strange in the half-light. Reflections from the screen glittered in their eyes. “What do you think?” he murmured.
Without taking her eyes off the aliens she whispered, “I stayed up all night reading the United Worlds reports on Cacs’k.” She couldn’t tell him that the report made her skin crawl, filled as it was with images and full-motions of the big chicken-things going about their various pursuits on their home world. “There’re sixteen definable types of Cacs’kian. Our Nuncios represent the two dominant species, the big white ones and the little buffs, with the buffs being more numerous and in most of the important positions of power. The two control over seventy percent of the planet between them. It’s a very imperialistic government. The whole thing is amazingly stable, but I can’t figure out why. They haven’t got any military to speak of.”
“Oh?” Barry toyed with his stylus for a moment. “Imperialists, huh? Big on image, then.”
She shrugged. Any student of propaganda and advertising knew that. Big on how they appeared to others, big on how they appeared at home, where they ruled the roost. She grimaced at the pun.
The lights came up. Barry turned slowly away from Nipu and regarded the aliens thoughtfully. “Do you have any questions about the presentation?”
“Answering yes,” said Nuncio G’erk. “Querying if projection can be edited for wavelength.”
“I… don’t understand?”
G’erk turned toward H’okgon and held out a vast, flat-fingered hand. The smaller Nuncio took a keypad from a sporran at its side and gave it to G’erk, who poked at it. The translation module floating behind its head repeated the question more slowly and at a higher volume.
Shouting at him because we’re foreigners? Nipu thought.
“Wave, uh, length?” repeated Barry.
“Failing to see,” from H’okgon. “Hearing it quite well. Lacking visual capabilities to perceive colors above blue wavelength and below orange wavelength.”
“Ohhhhh, sure, sure.” Barry ran a hand through his thick blonde hair. “We can re-index the palette or, or something.” He plunged into a discussion of marketing strategies with the aliens. Barry’s sales instincts had taken over, Nipu knew. He had a roomful of clients ripe for the plucking and would hammer away at them for as long as it took to close the deal. She’d seen him do this with clients before. He’d get the deal, with people skills so finely honed that they’d thank him at the end. Those skills, plus his drive and ambition, were why she had agreed to go into business with him. That, plus the funny things that happened to her emotions when she was around him. He wasn’t aware of those things yet but the day was coming, she knew, when he would be.
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